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[Keywords] Maison Ikkoku and Codifiers

Maison Ikkoku is not currently available to stream. The manga is available from Viz Media and very likely at your local library.


I’m probably not the right person to give you a long-lived, researched perspective on Maison Ikkoku. While the manga has technically been out in English for nearly my entire life, there wasn’t really a great way to read it until just last year – even now, it’s only halfway through a print run. So it kind of just… slipped by me.

Not that I wasn’t aware of it – it’s hard to follow manga for long without tripping over Rumiko Tamahashi’s work. But there’s still that little barrier when things are out of print, especially when the piping-hot seasonal freshness is right there, available to stream on a whim.

And while I’m keen on a bit of Wikipedia Sleuthing on unfamiliar stories, usually that’s pointed at flashier series. You know, like how Yu-Gi-Oh had an unaired-in-America season where the main character would gamble against schoolyard bullies. Or how Iron Fist‘s predecessor in the comics uses chi-powered guns. Great for quips at a party, but a far cry from actual, focused study on these things.

So, like I said, not the person for an Expert Opinion on how Maison Ikkoku informed half of the slice-of-life romcoms I gobble up like candy.

But what I can say is that it’s a wild trip for semi-fresh eyes in 2021.

What’s Old is New Again

I say “semi-fresh” because, well, it’s kind of impossible to look at Maison Ikkoku in a vacuum any more.

Not that it’d be weird or disingenuous if you hypothetically did. Rather, if you’ve seen any form of anime rom-com written in the last three or four decades, it feels like you have context for it by default.

You know how seemingly-ninety-percent of character conflict in anime seems to boil down to contrived misunderstandings? Double-entendres and bad-faith assumptions that would be solved if these darned kids would just use their words? Or that the main character is an absolute blockhead? Not even a hopeless Charlie Brown, but an immature and hasty, self-sabotaging little goblin?

That’s the entire lifecycle of the series. Twisted up, turned around, and revisited over volumes of story, to the point where it wraps around and becomes a comfort blanket. It’s like a distillation of what you’d still see in a manga written today. And distillation, of course, leaves its cartoonish slapstick and equally-indulgent melodrama all the more potent.

Not that Maison Ikkoku invented any of these tropes by any stretch. More that Takahashi has a way of sharpening those tools to a razor-edge and wielding them with a flourish.

And, especially as things progress, when to put those tools away.

Scarves and sweaters: two of the few things as cozy as a classic rom-com.

A Half-Fantasy

Usually, a series like this would choose to love solidly in the “larger-than-life” zone. Let any signs of indulgent romanticism feel like they come from the same embellished place that its swordfights and magic do. And that’s true for much of Takahashi’s other work, which overwhelmingly features the supernatural. It’s even true of one of its most notable peers.

Not so for Maison Ikkoku. Our de-facto protagonist in Godai is just a colossal goober, no strings attached – and the same goes for every one of his neighbors in the titular boarding-house. All of them teeter just on the edge of being caricatures.

I should get mood whiplash from these characters after the first dozen chapters. On paper, “endearing jerkbag” is an exhausting zig-zag to read for sixteen chapters in a sitting, especially multiplied across half a dozen characters. But, in practice, that level of honesty is almost disarming; outside of very emotionally-open and trusting relationships, people just don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves like they do at the Maison.

Which is totally understandable – people need their defenses. But time and again, that openness been exact formula to fully-engage with character, despite and because of their less-flattering features.

Suffice it to say, Maison Ikkoku is a story full of instant-favorite characters.

Every last one of them a lovable doofus.

The Maison is Where the Heart Is

As much as a comic and a show, Maison Ikkoku strikes me as having the soul off a stage play. Everybody in-frame is over-acting, shouting their emotions to the nosebleed seats and waving their arms for the patrons in the back row.

( It probably doesn’t hurt that the fashion here is on point. Seriously, costume designers and stagehands are unsung heroes. )

I adore what that means for how these characters fully feel every tiny bump in the road. They can’t be mildly pleased, they simply have to grin ear-to-ear. They can’t just be displeased, they’re obligated to give a visible huff now and scream into a pillow later.

And, on the occasions when characters and have a genuine heart-to-heart, they reflect that, too. It’s not just to push the plot along – rather, the entire cadence of the work slows to a crawl. There’s an open space where the air in the room has weight, and both the characters and the audience is granted some time to process that weight. Godai and Kyoko might go back to snapping at each other’s throats tomorrow, sure. But as time goes on, they layer on more color and history, until eventually, what do you know, there’s some modest reflection of the slow churning that defines our long-term interactions with each other.

And that’s the medium as a whole, isn’t it? From day one, what I’ve loved most about anime and manga is how it wears its heart on its sleeve. Its monstercatching stories are from tip to tail about the powers of teamwork and friendship. Its heroes relish in their own heroicism like no other. And, when you focus down in on everyday folk, everyday drama gets the weight and importance that it rightly deserves as often as it’s the punchline for an over-exaggerated pratfall.

One of these days, I’ll run out of ways to say “I like series where nothing much happens“. But not yet. They still have so much more to bare to us, not despite, but because of how close stay to home.

And they learned from the best.

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A special nod to Life at the Maison Ikkoku, a fansite for this series that’s over two decades strong. We all should hope to love our favorites so dearly.

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